Want a national conversation? Free the media

Singapore Democrats

The Today newspaper asked for the SDP's response to the Government's plans for a national conversation. The SDP provided a comprehensive response stating clearly our position. The most important point is: free the media.  

1. Will SDP be part of this national conversation?

A national conversation is the default mode of a democratic society. The various elements in a community contribute ideas and policy suggestions through a range of media which form the vehicle of policy making. The SDP has contributed ever since its founding. It has produced a range of publications containing policy options backed up by research and expert opinion.

Recently, we published an alternative economic strategy entitled It's About You; two Shadow Budgets in 2011 and 2012; a paper on ministerial salaries; and a National Healthcare Plan. Secretary-General, Dr Chee Soon Juan, has published eight books on various aspects of economic and political policy over the course of the last 18 years.

We have hosted numerous policy forums including a cross-party one on challenges faced by the Malay community on 8 September 2012. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim was invited but declined to attend. The National Healthcare Plan was unveiled at a public forum to which Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong was invited; he too declined to attend. We have since repeated our invitation to Mr Gan but he has not responded.

2. If so, how will SDP be involved in this national conversation?

The SDP has always been a part of the framework, proposing alternative policies and research papers as well as public forums. However, the government has never entered a conversation with us. Therefore, it cannot be for the SDP to state how it intends to participate. It is for the government to explain why it has not engaged us (and indeed the broad mass of civil society) and how it intends to depart from this practice.

Otherwise, the government will be extremely vulnerable to the accusation that the national conversation has little real substance. A conversation is only as strong as the participants: if the participants are selected from those inclined to agree, little policy development will result.

For the government to ensure an effective conversation, it has to make available all those avenues which facilitate communication. There are two principal vehicles: the mainstream media in all its forms and civil society organisations. Controlling the media and marginalising civil society organisations such as NGOs and political parties will not conduce to a robust and effective debate.

3. What are the main areas that SDP will be focusing on?

The SDP's policy positions have remained consistent across two decades:

a. We advocate a radical rethink of economic policy that harnesses the creativity, pluralism and diversity of our people; reduces the dependence on multinationals; and trims down direct government participation in the economy;

b. The restoration of civil and political rights and the removal of policies that discriminate against the disadvantaged;

c. Controlling rising prices of public and private goods and ensuring a living wage for all persons as well as assistance for those unable to work; and

d. Cultivating a transparent and accountable political system that ensures value for money, honesty, and the ability to get the job done rather than a system which seeks to shield leaders and their decisions from valid policy criticisms.

Underlying these policy principles, the SDP advocates firmly the removal of those structures that obstruct candid and sincere feedback or discourage citizens from speaking up or joining organisations devoted to change, principally the mainstream media, the public assembly controls, the limitations on free speech, and the parliamentary innovations introduced from 1988 which have limited rather than advanced our democracy.

Today reported one small paragraph despite asking all the questions:
Opposition slams make-up of committee
Ng Jing Yng
10 Sept 2012

A day after Education Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled the members of a committee which will lead the national conversation, Opposition figures yesterday lashed out against the lack of Opposition representation.

In particular, some of them pointed to the inclusion of seven People's Action Party political officeholders, in the 26-member committee - including Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, and Senior Minister of State Lawrence Wong - as a sign that it was a partisan exercise, despite Mr Heng's remarks last Saturday that it was not.

Several Opposition politicians TODAY spoke to were also keen to distance their parties from the national effort, even though the Government has made it plain, on several occasions, that the conversation must be as inclusive as possible.

The Workers' Party, which has the most number of Opposition Members of Parliament, was unable to respond to TODAY's queries by press time.

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam said her Singapore People's Party (SPP) was "deeply disappointed" that the committee only included PAP politicians.

Pointing to the exclusion of bloggers as well, she reiterated the need for alternative voices on the committee. "Otherwise, Singaporeans will regard this as yet another publicity stunt by the Government (and) not regard it as a sincere or genuine conversation, let alone a national one. Given these circumstances, the SPP will be deliberating whether we even have a role to play in this or not," said Mrs Chiam.

Noting how a couple of ministers did not take up Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) offer to participate in its forums, SDP Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan said "the Government has never entered a conversation with us".

Said Dr Chee: "Therefore, it cannot be for the SDP to state how it intends to participate (in the national conversation initiative)."

He added: "The SDP has always been a part of the framework, proposing alternative policies and research papers as well as public forums ... A conversation is only as strong as the participants: If the participants are selected from those inclined to agree, little policy development will result."

Concurring, the National Solidarity Party's (NSP) Secretary-General Hazel Poa said that, for the conversation to be inclusive, the PAP "can start by not simply talking to people who already agree with them".

Ms Poa said the NSP "will continue to engage in national conversation by publicly putting forward our points of view on matters of national interest" through the Internet and the media. However, Reform Party's (RP) Secretary-General Kenneth Jeyaretnam said the RP is "not taking part in a state-managed exercise" as he demanded for "freedom of expression".

'Committee will not direct conversation'

On Saturday, in response to why "alternative voices" like bloggers and Opposition MPs were not included on the committee, Mr Heng told reporters that the initiative "is not a partisan exercise". He added that "every Singaporean is welcome to provide their views, including members of the Opposition, and the committee will be happy to receive their feedback and ideas."

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin told TODAY "the idea is indeed to be inclusive". "Many of us feel very strongly about bringing in a wide range of voices and have been discussing the people whom we can and should meet. It is not possible to converse about our future if we are blinkered," he said.

He added that as far as the civil society space is concerned, "we will gather their points from their stated positions, their posts and conversations with us online and off line, we'd also meet a range of them in person though we can't meet all".

Said Mr Tan: "Hence, social commentators, influential bloggers, opposition members and others will be involved, along with Singaporeans and groups who may not have articulated their views, especially online."

He stressed that the conversation is "among Singaporeans, in which Government leaders will be among the participants. The committee we have formed will not direct the conversation."

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharuddin said he does not see the need for Opposition figures on the committee. He said: "At the end of the day, it is about the decisions the Government of the day has to make ... This is the conversation of the Government of the day and its people."

But National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh disagreed. Describing the Opposition as "part of the national political landscape", he said: "If the intention is to hold an 'inclusive' (conversation), then it must include all, irrespective of one's political or ideological shades and colour, whether you are for or against the Government."

Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong said that, given the current composition of the committee, the "glaring omission" of the Opposition and non-government organisation representatives could skew the discussion.

Adding that ground rules could be laid down to deal with disagreements, he said: "Let's say in the committee you have (Workers' Party leaders) Low Thia Khiang or Sylvia (Lim) and they actually disagree with the ultimate outcome. You have a clear process of how that dissenting view is captured and recorded."

Tuesday, 11 September 2012 speakup2 Print